U.S. Helps Vietnam Defend Fishermen Who 'Get into Trouble' With China

Days after sparks flew with China, U.S. Coast Guard official reveals 'uncanny' meeting.

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U.S. Coast Guard still protects Vietnamese fishermen from Chinese ships such as this one leaving the Xingang Port of Haikou on March 26.

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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. --- The U.S. Coast Guard actively helps Vietnam protect its fishing vessels at a time when the Chinese are testing the boundaries of their Pacific neighborhood, a top official says.

Many of the officers involved in this effort remember firsthand the late 1960s and early 1970s when the U.S. and Vietnam were at war, says Coast Guard Rear Adm. William Lee. Now the two governments are cooperating to develop a fighting force that can help Vietnamese fisherman and others when they "get into trouble."

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While speaking at the annual Sea-Air-Space expo here, Lee described a meeting he conducted with Vietnamese counterparts the week after one of its vessels reportedly caught fire after Chinese sailors fired a flare at it.

"They have thousands of fishermen who set to sea every day without the benefit of a U.S. Coast Guard-like entity who can go out when those guys get into trouble," said Lee, the deputy for Operations Policy and Capabilities. "There is a growing demand for Coast Guard-like authorities and capabilities and training efforts. The problem is there is far more demand than there is supply to meet the demand at the present moment."

Lee says he sat down to lunch in March with a senior Vietnamese Naval officer and an Army colonel roughly his same age who slept in a bunker outside Hanoi before entering service in 1972.

"We both found it kind of uncanny that here we are all these years later. He, still on active duty after all those years, talking to the U.S. government about building capacity in their country," he said. "That story is remarkable."

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News broke on March that Chinese officials had engaged a Vietnamese fishing boat in disputed waters in the South China Sea. The Chinese boat allegedly fired a warning flare, which the Vietnamese claims set its fishing boat on fire.

Lee's interaction with the Vietnamese officers was "one small vignette of many of the things happening over there in Southeast Asia," he said. The U.S. Coast Guard has also met with Chinese counterparts in Honolulu for talks in recent weeks, he added.

The Chinese have themselves embarked on efforts to improve their coast guard. Until March, it had five separate entities that performed the same efforts of the U.S. Coast Guard. Now they have combined four of those together, Lee said.

"They took a lesson looking across the spectrum there and saw how we do business," he said.

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